Johnson’s political future full of intrigue for manySenator is only Democrat in South Dakota holding statewide office.
By: Denise Ross, The Daily Republic
As South Dakota’s only Democrat in a statewide office, Sen. Tim Johnson’s plans for 2014 are fraught with political intrigue.
The three-term, 65-year-old senator isn’t talking about whether he might seek reelection or retire when his sixyear term ends, and he is clear that he won’t do so until next year.
“It’s too early to tell. 2014 is a long time away,” Johnson said.
When might he make an announcement? “I think 2012 is soon enough,” he said.
Johnson’s silence won’t stop political tongues from wagging, as operatives and junkies discuss South Dakota’s election cycle chess board. Dakota Wesleyan University Dean of Leadership and Public Service Don Simmons said Johnson is smart to wait until next year, probably until after the 2012 election, to make a decision.
“A lot of what Tim does will depend on what happens in 2012 with the South Dakota House race and nationally,” Simmons said, referring to President Obama’s 2012 re-election bid.
Should Republican Kristi Noem win re-election to a second term in the U.S. House, Simmons said there would be “incredible pressure on Tim to stay.”
A whole lot is at stake for the South Dakota Democratic Party, Simmons said, as South Dakota’s lone U.S. House seat went to Noem and all of the statewide offices in Pierre are held by Republicans after the 2010 election.
So Johnson’s decision won’t just affect his own trajectory but also that of his party, Simmons said.
“I would expect there to be a lot more pressure on him to make sure that if he steps down that there’s somebody highly electable who could replace him,” Simmons said. “If there’s not somebody who can obviously (win the election), the Democrats will put a lot of pressure on him to stay in. The Democrats have to make absolutely sure that spot can be filled, or South Dakota won’t have a statewide Democrat.”
Should Noem lose in 2012, having a Democrat in the House seat would take some pressure off Johnson, Simmons said. Minnehaha County Commissioner and Democrat Jeff Barth has announced he will seek the Democratic nomination for U.S. House, and Johnson staffer Matt Varilek is also a potential candidate.
When talking about another electable Senate candidate for 2014, should Johnson decide that three terms have been enough, two obvious names come up: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who narrowly lost the House seat to Noem last year, and Johnson’s son, South Dakota’s U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson.
Herseth Sandlin has been quiet but has said she’s keeping the door open to another run for office after the bruising 2010 campaign.
The big question, according to Simmons, is whether Herseth Sandlin is willing to swim in rough election waters again. “Would she run? That’s the big question,” Simmons said.
While the younger Johnson appears politically ambitious, Simmons thinks it would be a risk to run as part of what some might consider a family dynasty. Such was the case with Herseth Sandlin, whose grandfather served as governor and grandmother as secretary of state. Later, her father made a competitive bid for governor and served as a longtime leader in the Legislature.
Meanwhile, the outcome of 2012’s presidential election also will be a factor in Johnson’s 2014 decision. Should the Republican nominee lose to Obama, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., might become a hot commodity in GOP presidential discussions for 2016.
“There is tremendous talk about Thune jumping into a run for president the next cycle,” Simmons said. “Then, the fight might be over Thune’s spot, an open seat.”
In Republican-leaning South Dakota, an open seat is more appealing to a Republican candidate than is taking on a proven incumbent like Johnson, Simmons said. Were someone like former Gov. Mike Rounds pondering a Senate bid, he might decide to wait for the open seat.
On top of all the political intrigue, Johnson continues to recover from a brain injury, a stroke-like incident that occurred when a blood vessel burst in late 2006 due to a condition he was born with. Despite being early in his recovery, Johnson handily won re-election in 2008.
Simmons expects that issue wouldn’t weigh heavily in Johnson’s next election, either.
“He’s electable. I really think so,” Simmons said.
Likewise, Johnson said health issues are not a concern.
“I feel great. I’m healthy. I’m still interested in government making things better for people,” he said.
And then he added, “We’ll see.”